I first wrote about Cade Cavalli in March of 2020. It was my second-ever article at Razzball, in which I was ranking college prospects 11-25 for dynasty leaguers to target leading up to the 2020 MLB Draft. Equipped with a projectible frame at 6-foot-4 and 225 lbs., I ranked Cavalli at No. 13, sandwiched between Heston Kjerstad and Daniel Cabrera. At the time, Cavalli was coming off a COVID-shortened 2020 junior season where he pitched to a 4.18 ERA with a .281 BAA in 23.2 non-conference innings. That created some pause in industry circles, as Cavalli had a 6.75 ERA/.269 BAA as a freshman in 2018 — so there was really just one season of bottom-line success to go off of (2019: 5-3, 12 GS, 60.1 IP, 3.28 ERA, .238 BAA, 8.8 K/9, 5.2 BB/9). But even in that lone, successful 2019 campaign, the walks stood out as a concern, and there was reason to believe that Cavalli might be one of those pitchers who struggle to produce consistently despite having all of the tools to excel. Enter 2021. Now we have more to build off of. MiLB results. Information to pair with Cavalli’s college track record that might unveil more of the shadowy picture. And what we’re beginning to see is the makings of an elite prospect; an arm capable of commanding one of the top-two spots atop a major league rotation. Could Cavalli unseat former Chicago Bears quarterback Cade McNown as having the best athletic career of any Cade in sports history? I’ll dive into that today and as a bonus, I’ll reveal why an East Coast native such as myself once dressed up as McNown for Halloween as a child.
Quick recap: Cavalli pitched three seasons at the University of Oklahoma from 2018-20, where he was a two-way player during his first two campaigns. At the 2020 MLB Draft, the Washington Nationals selected him with the 22nd overall pick — which was right in line with where draft pundits had him ranked leading up to the event, as he was ranked the draft’s No. 22 overall prospect by both MLB Pipeline and Baseball America. There was a clear consensus that Cavalli was a first-round talent, albeit one destined for the bottom-third of the top-30 picks. This was because Cavalli exhibited poor control (2018: 6.8 BB/9, 2019: 5.2 BB/9) for the bulk of his college career and was not eliciting nearly as much weak contact (.253 career BAA) as you would have expected from a player with his type of overpowering arsenal. Speaking of which, let’s rewind to my analysis of those two factors from back in 2020.
Oklahoma's Cade Cavalli is our Big 12 Preseason Pitcher of the Year.
— Baseball America (@BaseballAmerica) January 30, 2020
“Cavalli was the top prep arm in Arkansas back in 2017 when he went in the 29th round and the young righty should see that stock rise to the first round in 2020. He sits 93-97 MPH and touches 98 MPH with a 60-grade fastball while also wielding a 55-slider and 60-curve to go with a changeup that’s been graded anywhere from 40-55 on the 20-80. The curveball is more of a power-curve that sits in the low 80s, while the slider has been referred to as a slider/cutter hybrid that has pretty serious velocity in the upper 80s. Another plus: the fastball has some major riding action to it, making it more difficult to track.”
“But all things considered, I’m still wondering why he didn’t achieve better baseline results during his college career – especially considering he’s built physically as a prototypical Major League power pitcher and projected to have front-line starter upside. I don’t know if that’s in the cards for Cavalli, who struck out 114 batters in 101 1/3 career innings (10.1 K/9) at Oklahoma with a 4.09 ERA and .253 BAA. He pitched to a 3.28 ERA/.238 BAA in 2019 in a 60 1/3 inning sample size, so he’s shown signs of putting it together and although he was hit fairly hard in 2020 (25 H in 23 2/3 IP, 4.18 ERA, .281 BAA) the strikeout numbers improved. Cavalli punched out 37 in 23 2/3 innings in the COVID-19-abbreviated campaign, translating to a 14.07 K/9. That’s 37 more people than I’ve ever punched out – side note: I have only ever been in one fight and it was in seventh grade and I hit the kid with a shovel. Snowball war got heated. But as for Cavalli, that’s a far cry from his career numbers and his 8.8 K/9 seen in 2019, and although that number would have in all likelihood come back down to earth with a larger sample size, I think there is something to it. Bottom line: Although Cavalli has front-line starter upside and could evolve into a formidable fantasy weapon who eats both innings and produces steady Ks, the amount of contact he has elicited in the past raises questions especially given his clean mechanics, prototypical build and healthy arsenal. He’s a top 15 college guy to target without question, but comes with more uncertainty in terms of a Major League ETA (second half of 2022?) and concerns about his lack of deception.”
That brings us to present day, where we can now add new data into our dissection of Cavalli. For starters, I no longer have concerns about Cavalli’s deception or lack thereof. He struck out 15.7 batters-per-nine in a seven-game cameo at High-A to open the year and currently owns a 12.7 K/9 across nine starts at Double-A Harrisburg. On top of that, the baseline results are there and they are highly impressive for a starting pitcher appearing in his first professional season — especially for a pitcher that 21 MLB teams passed on in the first round. In seven starts totaling 40.2 innings at High-A, Cavalli produced a 1.77 ERA and 0.89 WHIP with a 2.7 BB/9. Upon the promotion to Double-A, Cavalli has remained on-point in his first nine starts totaling 48.1 frames with a 2.79 ERA and 1.28 WHIP. However, that rise in WHIP is the result of a 5.0 BB/9 at Double-A, which is in line with Cavalli’s lack of control at Oklahoma from 2018-19 (5.6 BB/9). When you combine the output across both levels Cavalli has pitched at, it doesn’t look nearly as concerning: 14.1 K/9, 3.9 BB/9. But if I’m going to nitpick anything about Cavalli at this juncture, it’s how erratic his control appears to be, going from 5.2 in 2019, to 1.9 in 2020, then back up to 3.9 in 2021.
— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) July 12, 2021
This is precisely why Cavalli is such a conundrum as a prospect. He struck out hitters at an alarming rate during his final season at Oklahoma (14.1 K/9) and exhibited elite control (1.9 K/9), yet was hit around for a career-high .281 BAA while allowing more hits (25) than innings pitched (23.2). One year prior, he walked over five batters per nine innings, but produced career lows in both BAA (.238) and ERA (3.28). Fortunately, the conundrum is slowly disintegrating with more data.
Cavalli has pitched 89 innings so far as a professional. He has given up 59 hits, or 6.0 per nine. That’s elite. If you combine his 2020 season at Oklahoma with his current 2021 campaign, Cavalli has a 14.1 K/9 and 3.5 BB/9. He walked just five batters in 23.2 innings to close out his college career, and his control looked strong at High-A (2.7 BB/9), so there is more telling us that Cavalli’s ability to limit free baserunners is trending upward than the contrary. And with the aforementioned arsenal, I discussed back in 2020, it’s beginning to look like the Nationals nabbed a top-10 player at pick 22 last June. Cavalli has been working up to 99 MPH this summer with his fastball, getting ugly swings and misses on his power curve while the changeup is beginning to look more like a 55-to-60 grade pitch than the 40-grade floor it was graded out with just over one year ago. With potentially four pitches graded out at 55-plus and that kind of repeatable velocity in a filled-out, 6-foot-4 frame — Cavalli is on a rapid ascension as a prospect. If the Nationals hadn’t fallen out of contention and shipped half the team out of Washington along with a year’s supply of baseballs and Bubbletape, Cavalli might very well be on the fast-track to the MLB as a high-leverage bullpen piece.
Alas, the Nationals are not in contention. That means we won’t see Cavalli come out of the pen at the MLB level this year. Instead, we’ll see him starting his first MLB game in the summer of 2022, where he’s positioned to be a stellar fantasy number two for years to come. I wouldn’t be writing this if I wasn’t buying, and I urge you to do the same.
Ahh. Right, right. Cade McNown. Now, I can’t tell you exactly what year it was, but I’m going to assume it was Halloween 2002, 2003, or 2004. Yes, McNown sucked in the NFL. But somehow, somehowwwwww, he managed to make it into Backyard Football 2002 for PC. Again, not sure how — but he was there. I can still remember it like it was yesterday, as my Chicago Bears roster (led by Rich Gannon) went undefeated for something like three or four seasons in a row, with shitty Cade McNown sitting on the sidelines. I bet the legendary Chuck Downfield had something to say about that. But even so, I thought McNown was a great NFL player, because every personality that made it onto Backyard Sports was supposed to be. I became a Bears fan temporarily, and my fandom of McNown followed suit. As it stands today, I am a die-hard Raiders fan thanks to Gannon’s impeccable ability to launch the ball downfield in Backyard Football 2002 — but it was McNown who I decided to dress up as for Halloween. Full uniform equipped with a child-sized Chicago Bears helmet.
And here I am today, reviewing McNown’s Wikipedia page and realizing just how much he sucked. Full. Freaking. Circle.
That’s all for this week! As always, I’m happy to take this conversation into the comments section or on Twitter, where you can find me @WorldOfHobbs.